Building a history: Carpentry grad lays foundation for career in home construction

Charissa Bruce, 2018When it comes to achieving career satisfaction, you could say Red River College grad Charissa Bruce really nailed it.

At 26, Bruce is a construction site superintendent for Qualico’s StreetSide Developments. A Red Seal carpenter, she started out as a labourer in 2011, after graduating from RRC’s five-month Carpentry pre-employment program. Over the next five years, she worked her way through four apprenticeship levels, periodically returning to RRC for technical training after gaining the required hours of on-the-job experience.

“I think it’s a great program,” says Bruce. “The way the apprenticeship program is run is better than spending four years in school with no practical experience whatsoever.”

Bruce didn’t have to wear out a lot of shoe leather to land her first job at StreetSide, although she did log plenty of roadwork.

“I rode around on my bicycle and at any type of construction site, I would hand out my resume,” she recalls.

“I lived in St. James so I started there, but one day I specifically remember I said, ‘OK you know what, I’m going to bike to the south,’ to the new home area because Bridgwater was just starting up at that point. So I biked all the way out there and stopped in at a StreetSide site.”

Bruce dropped off her resume at a handful of home construction sites in Bridgwater Forest, and StreetSide called her back to work on its townhome condominium project at 15 Bridgeland Dr.

She says Qualico has supported both her career and personal growth over the years, but success wasn’t handed to her. First, she was handed a broom and put on clean-up duty.

“I was always very curious so I’d quickly finish my sweeping or picking up garbage and then I’d go find a trade, any trade I could find, and just ask them what they were doing, how were they doing it and eventually some of them started letting me base closets and stuff like that.”

From installing baseboards to framing and finishing work, she grew increasingly adept, picking up tricks of the carpentry trade — many of them imparted by Ron Gretschman, the journeyman she apprenticed under —and getting acquainted with the other trades and sub-trades.

As site superintendent, she splits her time between office work, including scheduling trades, vendors and materials, and doing “roll-up-your-sleeves” work on job sites. While she conducts safety inspections and oversees work with many of the same tradespeople who showed her the ropes early in her career, she doesn’t get any on-the-job attitude from her co-workers.

“I’m naturally a bigger girl so I can lift things and it’s very impressive to some of them,” she laughs. “I haven’t had real problems. We’ve got a great group of respectful guys here and they’ve made me feel welcome and I believe they respect me. At the end of the day it’s a very friendly atmosphere.”

In fact, the camaraderie is one of the most rewarding aspects of her work, along with introducing homeowners to their new digs.

“The best part of my job I think is working with the guys, because we’ve got a great group of characters and everybody’s really fun to work with. But also doing the customer walk-throughs with the homeowners and just seeing how excited they are, wanting to move in and taking measurements for blinds and figuring out where their couches go. I think that’s probably one of my favourite parts of the job, is handing over a nice beautiful house.”

Coincidentally, it was one of her former StreetSide co-workers, Iain Geeves, who influenced her decision to enrol at RRC. She was a student at Gordon Bell High School when Geeves paid a visit to speak about post-secondary apprenticeship programs.

Bruce had already developed an interest in carpentry, having grown up with a single mom who handled DIY projects from installing a new toilet to electrical work and exterior house painting.

To this day, she doesn’t necessarily hang up her tool belt when the workday is done. She and her fiance, interior house painter Adam Blair, bought and renovated a couple of fixer-uppers in the city before finding an acreage in Steinbach, where they plan to take root.

“Like all the others, it needs a ton of work. The house is small so we converted the attached two-car garage into our living/room-rec room area. We’re getting there,” she says.

For many couples, doing renovations together is the quickest route to divorce, but Bruce says their next project is getting the house ready as the venue for their wedding this July.

“The first few were a little rough but I think we’ve got it down pat now. He usually does the plumbing and electrical side of things when we renovate, and I do all the carpentry,” she says with a laugh.

“That’s how we knew we were good to [get married] — we’ve been through a few renovations!”

Profile by Pat St. Germain (Creative Communications, 1989)